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What’s a Settlement Conference?

A settlement conference, here in Montana, is an informal “mediation.”  I put the word mediation in quotes because it might carry more technical overtones than I mean.  Boiled down, a settlement conference is a meeting between parties in a dispute to try to settle a claim or case.

Generally, settlement conferences don’t take place until after litigation has begun.  In injury cases, we have actually done a few before we filed and served our Complaint, but the general rule is they don’t happen until after litigation has begun and the important depositions have been taken.

Here in the Flathead County of Montana, the Local Rules require settlement conferences for all civil cases unless the Judge specifically enters an order allowing the parties to go to trial without one.  I suspect most district courts in Montana have similar requirements.

The first step in going to a settlement conference is for the parties to agree on a settlement master.
Depending on the skill of the settlement master and willingness of the parties to enter into the process, settlement conferences can be important tools in an attorney’s kit to resolve matters before trial.

Once the settlement master is selected, the parties, their attorneys, and the settlement master set aside a day to have the settlement conference.  Most settlement masters want the parties to attend in person.  In our offices, on the injury side, when a party is being defended by an insurance company, we always request that the insurance adjuster attend the settlement conference in person, too.

About a week before the settlement conference, all sides will send the settlement master a letter outlining their case.

On the day of the settlement conference, most settlement masters begin by having everyone meet together for a few minutes to outline the process.  Generally, the settlement master will explain that s/he is a neutral party, everything said to the settlement master is completely confidential, and it is his/her job is to help the parties resolve the matter — or at least understand each other’s position.

After this initial orientation, the parties will go into different rooms.  The settlement master will go back and forth between the parties, gathering information from each party and eventually conveying settlement offers back and forth.

Depending on the complexity of the case and posture of the parties, settlement conferences can take anywhere from three to eight hours.

Depending on the skill of the settlement master and willingness of the parties to enter into the process, settlement conferences can be important tools in an attorney’s kit to resolve matters before trial.

About the Author

Rebecca RutzRebecca “Becky” Henning-Rutz graduated from the University of Montana with her law degree in 2006 and has been working in Kalispell ever since. Becky has been working as an associate for Henning, Keedy & Lee since 2007.View all posts by Rebecca Rutz →

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